Thursday, March 8, 2012

Eating Out In Japan: Plastic Food

I love going out to eat.  Rich and I usually eat at home during the week but when the weekend comes, I'm all about going out to eat.  When I found out we were definitely moving to Japan, I was really excited by the thought of all the new restaurants I would be able to try and all the yummy food I was going to enjoy (so far, I have not been disappointed).  At first I was nervous about eating in local restaurants: how would I know how/when to order, would I be able to communicate, how would I know what to order.  Thinking about the first time Rich and I ate at a local restaurant makes me laugh because we were so serious about it.  After we were seated, and not wanting to look like idiots, we spent at least 10 minutes in silence, carefully observing what everyone else was doing and how they were ordering.  This is how we first learned about the buzzer system I referenced in the post "Things About Living In Japan That Make Me Happy". Thankfully everything went smoothly and we're now old pros at eating out (well, for the most part anyway). :) 

Many restaurants that get a lot of foreigners tend to have English menus (or at least parts will be in English). But if not, don't worry, all you have to do is look for the plastic food display case to determine what type of food the restaurant serves and what to order.  When I really started exploring and searching for new restaurants to try, one of the first things I noticed was the display cases with plastic/model food that a large majority of restaurants seemed to have (keep in mind that I'm referring to the more casual restaurants; I don't think you'll find a plastic food display at Gordon Ramsay's at the Conrad Hilton in Tokyo).

Besides having a tendency to make a person hungry, these plastic food displays can also be incredibly helpful. For example, if you happen to be in a shopping complex or at a food court (where there are several restaurants in a row) and you don't know what you want to eat, taking a quick glance at the plastic food displays each restaurant has definitely helps those that are more visually inclined decide what/where they want to eat.  Also, if the menu is not in English, the handy dandy plastic food display can help you decide what you should order.  In theory, it also helps speed up the ordering process once inside the restaurant, because presumably the customer has looked at the display and has already made a decision as to what he/she wants to eat (unless of course you're my husband who changes his mind at least 5 times before we actually order).

Since I'm a curious person, I did some research into the origin and evolution of Japanese plastic food  The first Japanese fake food models were made in 1917 and were first used by restaurants starting in approximately 1926.  The original models were made out of wax and were intended to be used as a marketing tool because Japanese like to see the end product.  In fact, someone wrote a book which is devoted entirely to the subject of plastic food - in particular, it explores the psychological structure unique to the Japanese and which brought about the plastic food culture.

Apparently, over time, the plastic food business has become a billion dollar industry in Japan and the making of the plastic food has actually become an art form (there are even regular competitions that are held).  Each restaurant's items are custom made for that particular restaurant with an emphasis on making the model look as authentic as possible. I learned that the fake ingredients are often chopped up in a manner similar to how the real dishes are prepared in order to make the model more authetic. I'm here to tell you that the models really DO look like the dish you are served. There's one particular display that I pass a lot and I often wondered if the real salad actually looked like the display because the display just looked so perfect (see the chef salad on the left side of the pictue).  One day I was in the mood for a salad so I decided to order the display salad.  Lo and behold, the salad I was served looked EXACTLY like the display - all the ingredients were perfectly lined up in exactly the order shown in the display.  That taught me to never doubt a plastic food display again!


Roland said...

You left out a pic of the best Japanese plastic food: Crepes!

Shannon said...

That's true! I'll have to do a follow up post!!

Justin said...

If you are looking for an online shop that sells [Made in Japan] fake food related items in English and ships all over the world, you may want to check out Fake Food Japan:

All the best,